The Tampa Bay Lightning's tenure in the Southeast Division comes to a close early this evening with the Bolts playing their Divisional opponent series finale against the Carolina Hurricanes at Times Palace. While the Lightning have one final matchup with a Southeast Division opponent this season in the Florida Panthers (the season finale on Saturday), the Bolts will not be losing the Panthers as a divisional foe next season as they will with the Capitals, Jets, and Hurricanes. Nope, the panthers are coming with Tampa Bay to the yet-unnamed successor to the Northeast Division.
In fact, this final week of the NHL season sees the Lightning playing its games against three future divisional opponents in Florida (Saturday), Boston (Thursday) and Toronto (Wednesday).
But, that's the future. That's the week ahead. That's not tonight.
The Hurricanes come in to town on the simple moral premise of jumping the Lightning in the standings; the Hurricanes are a single point behind the Lightning in the Eastern Conference standings.
You've got to feel for Carolina; they had a very promising start to the season but faded rather quickly when injuries mounted (and continue to mount). Long term, they'll be fine, but this season amounts to a grand lost opportunity for Carolina. That lost opportunity came with the positive of Alexander Semin finding his place on Tobacco Road, notching 40 points (11 goals, 29 assists) in 40 games for the Canes. Semin, combined with linemates Eric Staal (47 points) and Jiri Tlusty (32 points) has a combined 119 points.
Yet there is a potential danger here that Tampa Bay knows well - getting so much production out of one line and a slim margin of secondary scoring from the rest of the team works against you. Tampa Bay knows that well from past years. This year? The Bolts offense is spread around enough that 12 Lightning forwards have double-digit point totals going into this final week of the season (and it would be 13 if Cory Conacher had not been traded) compared to Carolina's eight.
At any rate, offense aside, the issue is defense here. Defense, where Carolina has been hurt the most this season; defense, where Tampa Bay has lapsed the most this season. Both teams' downfalls can be tied to it. Defense will ultimately either cause the Hurricanes to be swept by the Lightning this season or prevent as much. We'll find out soon enough.
Anders Lindback makes his return from his high ankle sprain this evening; Anders has missed the last 13 games since his fluke ankle sprain while sliding to make a save. I would expect Ben Bishop to serve as Lindback's backup tonight, but it's also possible Mathieu Garon serves in that role.
Sami Salo, who left the Montreal game with a back injury, is in the lineup tonight. That's just as well; the Bolts are only carrying six defensemen at current. Their long-time seventh defenseman, Marc-Andre Bergeron, is sporting the colors of the Hurricanes tonight. He was dealt for a 7th round draft choice and waived-again-and-claimed-again Adam Hall.
If something happens this evening that affects the Bolts blue-line, there is a possibility of a recall from Syracuse; the Crunch regular-season concludes tonight in a game against the Binghamton Senators. The proverbial second-season, the playoffs, gets underway at War Memorial in Syracuse on Saturday (...the final day of the NHL regular season). Any AHL recall would likely only be for Wednesday (against Toronto) and Thursday (in Boston) before that player was returned to Syracuse.
It's kids' appreciation day at the Forum and there will be freebies and such for the younger Lightning generation. The Lightning are also scheduled to wear road-white uniforms today.
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